How do we measure success? As marketers? Heck, as humans? Our default is to compare our accomplishments to those like us. This isn't totally unhealthy. A brand like Chick-fil-A should benchmark some of its success (i.e., sales, online share of voice, sentiment, etc.) to other QSR restaurants like Arby's or McDonald's. A world class sprinter may compare his 100 meter dash time with another athlete on his level. However, comparison metrics shouldn't be the focal point of growing. 

One Lesson from Chick-fil-A

When Truett Cathy died, I heard a lot of stories about his days running Chick-fil-A. One story I heard more than once took place a few decades ago when Boston Market was rapidly growing and taking market share away from Chick-fil-A. They were opening more stores and starting to make more money than Chick-fil-A. 

Recognizing this competitive threat, the executive team at Chick-fil-A all sat down at a meeting to figure out how they were going to grow and stay on par with Boston Market. Their main focus was opening more stores and maintaining their share of the market that appeared to be slipping away to this new chain. As the people in board room continued to argue about ideas, Truett Cathy banged hard on the conference room table. He hadn't said a word most of the meeting. In a tone of what I've been told was mild frustration, he declared "Gentlemen, I am tired of hearing you talk about how we need to get bigger. If we get better at what we do, our customers will demand that we get bigger."

If we get better at what we do, our customers will demand that we get bigger.
— Truett Cathy, Chick-fil-A founder

In order to get better before they got bigger, Chick-fil-A had to re-align their focus on themselves. Instead of focusing on what the other guys were out there doing and accomplishing, they had to look at the internal metrics and improve the aspects of their restaurants that mattered to them. This meant they had to benchmark against themselves. 

Benchmarking Against Myself in Running

One of the great things about running is that you always compete against yourself. Sure, you go to races and compare your finish time with other people. However, you improved the most when you focused on your own training and making incremental progress in fitness instead of spending time looking at what other people were doing.

I could watch other accomplished runners and think "well, this guy takes off hard and fights for the lead the whole way (like Steve Prefontaine would)" or "this runner ran a great time by starting off slow and running negative splits." Trying to imitate other great runners never really made me faster when I competed. I only improved or accomplished anything when I ran my own race.

When I would train with a group of guys back in Owensboro, we would have certain courses and track our times on those routes. Some people would knock the distance accuracy of our courses (with good reason), but one of the leaders of the group didn't care. He always said "it's just a benchmark course, accuracy doesn't matter. We're only competing against ourselves." 

What Does This Mean for Brands?

If you are a brand, don't get caught up justifying your existence by judging how many Facebook fans you have compared to someone else. Don't lose sleep over the fact that one brand made it into Fast Company this month, but yours didn't make the cut. Focus on what you do best. What behaviors and actions will drive incremental results for you? How are you improving on what you do? Sure, one brand may have a huge advantage on online followers. Despite that, there's a chance that mass following isn't driving business results. They may not be engaged, clicking links or buying anything. A brand that may perceived as successful to you on the outside could be ineffective on the inside.

Long term, the results could change. Just look at Chick-fil-A. They started benchmarking against themselves years ago. Now, who would you say is more successful between them and Boston Market? 

What Does This Mean for People?

Like brands and vanity metrics, we live by the same standards as humans, in every vertical.

  1. One person could have thousands of Instagram followers and hundreds of likes on every photo, but be very lonely in real life.
  2. Another person may pass up a lucrative business deal or working another job on the side to add more income so that they could spend more time with family. Sure, their net worth may not be as big or successful as someone on their level, but they also know their family makes them happier than any number could.
  3. You may know someone who has an executive title and climbed the corporate ladder quickly. Instead improving their own skill sets and knowledge base required for their job, they may have spent more time networking and prioritizing having a higher ranking than their peers. How do you think that's going to work out long term?

We should always try to get better. Observing what others are doing is one way (and sometimes a great way) to learn and inspire ourselves to try something new. That said, basing our success on how we stack up to the guy next to us will never feel like a success. There will always be someone bigger, better, faster, richer, or smarter than us. 

I love Buffer's company approach to getting better. They could have sold their company (as their founder wrote here), made a LOT of money and considered successful by their peers very quickly - and with good reason. But they haven't sold because they're always in a process of learning. Buffer's founders play the long game and know that they will be worth even more if they are even better than before. 

Contentment is rarely found in the comparison trap. However, I've learned (slowly) that more contentment can be found in knowing that you were better than yesterday. That you're always moving forward and taking steps toward your own goals, not someone else's goals

Defining what those goals are, whether as a brand or as a human, is half the battle.